Everything you wanted to know about trends, but were afraid to ask: An Interview with the editors of The Alpine Review

Louis-Jacques Darveau and Patrick Pittman, based in Montréal and Toronto, co-editors of The Alpine Review, compare trends to chasing the ambulance and are very ambitious about creating timeless content to explain contemporaneity. They started the independent publication out of love to magazines and an urge to understand and explain how we exist as a species on this planet. LJ is a multidisciplinary strategic advisor, focusing on new ventures, innovation opportunities, product development and marketing and delivering solutions designed to boost performance. He is interested in issues related complexity, turbulence, good governance and good society. Patrick is simply a writer, loving inky fingers and printing presses, building communities and making things and ideas. Working together as a jazz-band, as a deeply trusted unit that produces timeless, independent music, they started off without a predetermined goal, creating often unexpected content.

The Alpine Review is a magazine about observing the things that matter in the turbulent now. It is an attempt to understand what is happening, how it has been shaped by the past and how it might be shaping the future; a compendium of ideas for an audience of creators, makers and game-changers. The third issue is about to be launched when it’s ready. There is no rush when you’ve understand “trends” as LJ and Patrick do. Things that matter are timeless phenomenons that were valid in the past and are still valid today, just expressed in different ways. The magazine is looking at the bigger picture, at what is underlying to current phenomena. Despite the “digital fatigue” LJ was suffering from when founding the magazine in 2011, when he decided to make a print magazine rather than a digital platform, the new issue promises to reemerge with a substantial web presence.

We are four MA Innovation Management graduates, Anna, Aurora, Ivette and Terje, trying to understand how the past and present will influence modes of being in the future. We had the chance to meet with LJ and Patrick for a coffee at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch during their short stay in London for ModMag15 in preparation for our research projects that will be presented at our degree show “Through the Kaleidoscope” from 22 to 26 June at Central Saint Martins. The conversation has inspired our thinking and writings, and puts them into a context of how to create perspectives on the future. We will soon be graduating and are facing an exciting and turbulent period in which we reflect on past experiences that will act as signposts for the time to come.

Interviewers: Aurora Pavan and Anna Nolda Nagele

Photographer: Terje Svinning

Support: Ivette Procel

Listen to the full interview

Aurora: Why did you decide to produce a trends magazine rather than another medium?

LJ: Back in 2011 when I started thinking about it, I had many ideas in mind about how to nurture my ideas about how the world is changing and its flux and transitions. I could have started a blog, I could have started many things, but at that moment I was suffering a little bit from digital fatigue. I think people are now in more of a post-digital phase, where they accept that digital is no longer the thing to focus on. You should be liberated a little bit from technology because it is pervasive, it is everywhere. There was a lot of focus on technology for technology’s sake and I was tired of that. The best way for me to connect and get attention for this project was to do a print magazine. Print was going against the trend. The fact that it was a printed magazine was helping to counter the digital everythingness at the time. 
 We’ve never defined it as a “trends magazine”. We’re more interested by certain patterns and certain timeless phenomenons that were valid in the past and are still valid today. There are some things in life, society and the world that are more profound than all the little changes and hiccups that happen.

Aurora: How do you select the topics for the magazine? How do you future proof the issues before releasing them if you only publish them every couple of years?

LJ: It’s an editorial kind of principle that we have in terms of the writing and the referencing we make, we try to avoid referring to specific events or specific things that might be important just today. If you produce something and think: “Would this still be relevant in four or five years?” You’re going to write it differently. The editorial burden on yourself is different because you are going to avoid referring to things that lead to too much in the now. I still don’t think that what’s in the two first issues is outdated. In terms of the future, ideally for us, Alpine will be a once per year thing that sums up what we thought was the best thinking of that year.

Patrick: There’s a reason, and I’m not comparing Alpine to a philosophical text, but there’s a reason that we still read Alvin Toffler’s futurism from the seventies or any philosophy from the sixties or the early century. It’s when people use specific issues of the moment to try to understand those broader patterns of humanity in existence, which is what philosophers are often doing, looking at broader questions of how we exist as a species on this planet.

Aurora: Which kind of music would the Alpine Review be if it was a band?

Patrick: Hmmm… You’re asking a horrible music nerd here so it’s going to take a while to answer that one. There’s music that is about timelessness and enquiry simultaneously. There is a lot of that in the classical space and the new classical space. Often times, the process of putting it together can feel like some pretty-out-there jazz that goes somewhere you don’t necessarily expect. That’s generally how we work together anyways, as a deeply trusted unit that doesn’t have a score to go to. So maybe that sort of music might be a good sense. Maybe LJ has the meticulous consideration of Radiohead or something that is about relentless enquiry but also a very deliberate kind of nature.

LJ: If I had to name a band it would probably be Sigur Ros. Kind of unexpected but also quite intense certain times. Yes, Sigur Ros, especially because people think that they sing in Icelandic but it is a made up language, that means it is constantly sound. They are categorised as Post-Rock. But it could also be a good jazz band and I kind of like in terms of music that it is quite independent, that it has a certain range.

Patrick: I also went with the jazz option in terms of not necessarily starting up with a particular score and beginning with trust and inquiry.

Aurora: What do trends in our complex and uncertain world mean? Are they trends or something else?

LJ: I prefer to consider them as patterns rather than trends. Connectedness and digital means have made a lot of things visible that have not been visible before; the ability to connect dots is definitely more pattern recognition than trend forecasting; but yes, there are trends, something that is not existing today might be trending tomorrow; but is this something that matters? Is this something that you should pay attention to? If you react to each trend you’re going to have a hard time existing in today’s world because you’re chasing all kinds of things that are going to disappear. So we never talk about trends, ever. Trend is not a word that is part of our vocabulary in the agency. Personally, I am not following a lot of trendy things either. I am very strict in terms of how I split things between what matters and what doesn’t matter. I am not claiming to be right in these things but I am very assertive on that in terms of what it means for me. I think we have limited energy and we have unlimited problems to solve. Also, we have a lot of problems to find before we are actually able to solve them; all of that requires a lot of energy. There are things in the world that are not necessarily going in the right way so I am preoccupied to spend energy wisely and I am not going to fall into the latest things easy. Sometimes it is tempting, like chasing the ambulance. You are interested in going and seeing what is going on. But at some point you think: I understand that there is a situation there but I need to move on and do something else because if I chase every ambulance that I come across I am just going to chase ambulances every hour of the day and it does not make any sense.

Anna: Even though you say you don’t speak about trends, could you define the term macro trend? What does it mean for you?

LJ: Macro trends are important in the sense that at some point you need to be able to define the linkages between, or the ranking of, phenomenas, to be able to understand where you should pay attention. I don’t call it macro trend but I call it going to the essence of things and trying to have the meta view on what’s going on by understanding. That’s also what gives you a timeless prospective. If you start going back to a meta level of things, at some point you will bump into things that have always existed for us as humans and you will start finding better answers as to what are some of the problems and solutions of today.
Lately I was reading a book called “The Systems View of Life” [by Fritjof Capra and Per Luigi Luisi]. A very good book. One trend of today is gender balance and the way it is discussed is that we seek balance for the sake of balance. You’ve got 50%, we’ve got 50%, as if there was inner value to that. I’m not happy with that explanation because I don’t know when it is in life that we have perfect symmetry. There is no perfect symmetry in my family, in my household, and there is no perfect symmetry in body shapes and no perfect symmetry anywhere. I feel that it’s problematic because it’s not a good explanation. So I read this book, and later in the book, going back to trying to decode the world in a systemic way, one argument that the authors are making is, that a world that is systems based, where connections are made in a certain manner, is much more adapted to feminine values in ways of thinking that has more empathy than the more masculine, hierarchical, top down. And I was like: Ah! That is a good explanation for why we need to have more gender balance. It’s a good explanation because it makes you think of why we think we need gender balance. The way the world is shaping up right now is unfortunately more suited for certain types of values that have certain attributes. In past times it was maybe why societies shape differently because there were certain times you kind of had to have a certain type of society that adjusted to what were the requirements at that time. It’s the same thing at the end of the day, just understood in a different fashion.
Describing it as a trend in that way is going to keep you just at the surface level. If you're the operator at a business level you're gonna say this company has X women on the board, and we are gonna have X women on the board as well, or actually we are gonna have 1 more woman on the board than this other company, so we are doing better. Which is useless. It is useless in a sense that you're not doing an action for the right reasons, you're doing it for the superficiality of what you understand, which doesn’t mean a lot of progress.

Anna: Back to the magazine, how do you build narratives around your insights, and how do you package them, design them, to make them deliverable and consumable by the audience?

LJ: Well… it’s hard to describe because it’s like describing how to get clarity and clarity is one important concept that supports communication of these things. Clarity for me is a daily, if not an hourly, challenge. I mean, total clarity means you're a god, right? So obviously we are not going to achieve that. Clarity for me is the quest of my entire life. It’s a very challenging thing. You've got all those thoughts and you're bombarded by all those elements and fragments, and there are more fragments than ever before because of the visibility connectedness brought. One big thing is the podcast. When we talk we are like: “Wow, that was good!” But then you listen to yourself an you're like: “Oh My God! I’m just escaping my way around this and it’s not compelling.” so you have to find ways to gain clarity. That’s why writing is so important. I’m not a writer per se, but i do write, and I find the tricks, its coming with practice. Clarity is a practice that you need to refine, which is those mental debates you have with yourself, and also expressing it.

Patrick: We are working on a book at the moment and we were talking about the fact that we didn't want to do the traditional business book thing, of having the take-aways at the end. It’s such a lazy way to get to the ideas and clarity. As a writer, there is no challenge to that, there is no fun. When telling a story, is really important to know what it is you’re doing and giving people something to walk away with, something that really captured the person.
From the conference [ModMag15] I walked away with a paragraph from Kathy Krause. It is just an exquisite articulation of everything a magazine should be right now. I will carry that paragraph with me for a long time. Kathy was talking about how you can bring the thinking of magazines to a digital space. I suppose as how magazines should exist in a digital space, as in what it is that we need to bring to that space as opposed to the traditional things. She define four key properties of what a magazine is and what the identities are, which are: Design, Voice, Community and Slowness. Those are the things a print magazine has, very specifically, and that can exist across those things. And what she said is: “We shouldn’t leave the digital space to the people who want to do everything fast and shallow. We should design for an immersive and calm experience, even on mobile screens. We should develop voice and identity that allow us to be recognisable in this unbundled culture and we should take time to create things that have enduring quality and value.” That is so precise and exact of what a magazine should be in that space.
In our agency environment in terms of making content for clients and work with them, digital thinking is always about what’s trending right now. It regresses to bullshit whimsical so quickly and that’s something I try to resist. It’s effortless for us to resist that because it’s just not in our nature to do that stuff, but for clients it’s a whole other thing, because they get instantaneous numbers for that, but what they don’t get is identity. They don’t get voice. And the key thing of how a magazine can persist in this environment that we’re in, where everything is unbundled and people are contributing things across whatever platforms there are and through sharing whatever on whatever screen, voice is your brand, and consistency of that allows you to exist across all of that. That’s something I knew, but she just articulated it very very well.

Aurora: It was really interesting what you just said, that you are producing something and the clients want something else. I’m realising it as a student because I’m studying and I’m deepening values, the way to deliver values, like constructive things, real innovation. Clients most of the times just want something profitable. So how, as a consultant, do you manage this situation between the client who wants something different from what you want to deliver and what you really believe?

LJ: The thing is - and is funny because I feel like I’m talking like a 70 year old - based on my experience I feel that there is a difference between what the client is saying and what the client is really thinking. What clients are buying is not necessarily what they are asking you. Clients are buying confidence. They are buying the confidence you have, or you do not have. If you don’t have confidence, you will have all sorts of problems. If you have confidence and the client senses it in your proposals, in your deliverables and your thoughts, chances are you will be fine. But if you make all sorts of compromises, trying to put Mickey-Mouse costumes on what you are really thinking, and trying to adapt to what the client wants, you are going to lose your confidence, and you are going to be on shaky ground. It’s going to work for a while but is not going to bring happiness and is just going to bring moderate success. The key is to find the courage or to find the clarity and the ability to listen to who you are, what you want to do, in what can you be good and what you love and how to connect that to what you do. This can produce revenue for you but also value for clients in order to have that confidence. Confidence you will get from the extra little levels of inquiry that you have. If I was on vacation on an island I would be reading the same books that I’m reading for my business. My intellectual inquiry is so fundamental to what I do, and if I cannot connect this within the natural atmosphere of everything I do to generate revenue, then I’m wasting an opportunity that is going to haunt me at some point.
I think there are ways that you need to acquire in terms of the articulation of something in the business context. Some absolutely great, smart people might not be able to work with organisations because they do not want to filter their thoughts for the environment in which they will be used. I’ve been an entrepreneur and a catalyst or a filter for all kinds of weird people. It’s a skill you need to develop. If you are able to do what you love and channel it towards the clients’ objectives you are going to be successful.

Patrick: I have a couple of words to add as well. One of them is empathy. And this is a key one. You can be confident but you also need empathy for your clients. Particularly when you are working for large organisations you need to realise the challenges they are facing. People write what they need. In a proposal you kind of have to say: you actually don't know what you need. But what are your challenges? How can I understand you? Confidence is not saying: “I know what you need because I’m an expert!” But is actually more about understanding what they need. You can’t just be like: shut up, you don’t know what you need. It’s about deeply trying to empathise with the people you are directly dealing with. Figuring out what their challenges and their real objectives are and then using what you know to try to come up with a big idea they have never expected. That is what gets you real respect, going beyond delivering a thing they ask for, as long as it is meeting what they really need and they see that that’s what you are doing, not just imposing something on them. You have to find a balance of really pushing the people you are working with to get to a level that you are happy with, but in a way that is empathetic to their needs.

Anna: Is there anything else you want to tell as as students who will soon be graduating?

LJ: I separate life in terms of decades. The 20s, the 30’s and the 40’s, and I’m not sure about the 50’s yet but I’ll get there at some point. The 20’s to me is you need to be able to expose yourself to a variety of experiences, which means raising your hand and saying yes more often. Being too picky in your 20`s is a problem because one thing that’s important is secondary knowledge, which you get just by being around excellent people. You don’t need to be cutting an onion to understand how and onion is cut. If you watch someone cut an onion you might be able to learn how to cut an onion. I’ve learned a lot about cooking by being a waiter, paying attention to the cooks and by interacting with them. You acquire secondary knowledge that will stick in your mind that you accumulate. Secondary knowledge is important in your 20’s. You should be able to raise your hand and say: Yeah I’m gonna try that, and travel and to experiment different industries, because in your 30’s you have to start clustering some things that you did in your 20’s. And still you accumulate more experience in your 30’s, but you need to start clustering, because in your 40’s you are going to need to focus on one cluster, not one thing, one cluster of things. Getting towards mastery is a challenge in your 40’s. That’s my challenge for now, and then I’ll figure out later.

Anna: Does self promotion play an important role in this stage?

Patrick: I don’t think is self-promotion. I’ve spent a lot of time trying stuff out, working with people, building a network of people that know and trust me and know what I can do and come to me for things. It’s a growing network. And it’s also a network in which I know who to trust, getting great storytelling out there and just collaborating in whatever sense. There’s a network of people that will work with each other, no matter what, but we haven’t promoted ourselves, we’ve just all done good work together along the way. It’s not being afraid to put yourself out there and try things but to show your work, and that is not self-promotion, it’s just putting your work out there. I’ve written for all sorts of places, I’ve done theatre… it all adds to reputation. But it has never been me saying: “I need to build reputation.” It’s more like: “I wanna try this, I’m gonna do this.” And then if i like it I make sure to get it out there, it doesn’t matter who sees it.

LJ: I think reputation is an important thing to think about. Building your reputation is something that doesn’t imply self-promotion. Quantity over quality has always been a debate. Some people prefer quantity and they will just publish something all the time, they will be very engaged. If it’s natural for you and you like to tweet all the time and you are a quantity driven person that is fine, but frequency, there is something there that I’m not personally super interested by. Discretion is an important thing and I also believe in mystery, it is the most powerful marketing weapon if you know how to use it.

This article originally appeared on mainnovationmanagement.co.uk

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